We continue our in-depth revisiting of the 2004/05 campaign with an examination of a flawless January, a month in which a certain striker came to the fore...
‘There is no pressure at the top – the pressure is being second or third. If we win, then our job for that week is done.’
Didier Drogba’s status as a Chelsea legend was secure long ago. Since first signing in 2004, the Ivorian striker provided Blues fans with memories that will remain with them forever: his personal domination of Arsenal, that happy habit of finding the back of the net at Wembley and, of course, Munich in 2012.
Fifteen years ago, however, his adaptation to English football and a groin operation in the autumn meant that he started 2005 with a point to prove to the supporters at Stamford Bridge. By the end of January of that year, he’d done a pretty good job of convincing them that the club had a potentially devastating player on its hands.
Middlesbrough were the first visitors to the Bridge in the new year and, just as their North-East rivals Newcastle United had discovered in west London a month earlier, an in-form Drogba was too hot to handle.
Titus Bramble’s sculpted physique wasn’t enough to withstand the sheer power of the Blues No.15, so how would Gareth Southgate, then 34 years old and with the experience of several international tournaments behind him, cope with the big, bad Drog? The answer was, unfortunately for the current England manager: not very well.
Before the game, Eidur Gudjohnsen had presented his old strike partner, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who was returning to the Bridge as a Boro player, with a commemorative medal. What followed was the Dutchman metaphorically passing the baton to Drogba as the Ivorian served notice of his intention to become Chelsea’s next goalscoring sensation. Or as The Sun put it: ‘Little wonder, then, that Mourinho made such little effort to keep Hasselbaink last summer.’
Frank Lampard’s incisive pass gave the striker his first run at Southgate in the 15th minute and in the blink of an eye he was away, a slip of the ball through the veteran centre-back’s legs allowing him a clear run to finish past Mark Schwarzer. Then came the sprint towards the corner flag, followed by a knee slide – a celebration Chelsea fans became more than familiar with over the years.
He was back in his favourite spot just two minutes later, this time after beating Southgate in the air to meet a well-struck free-kick from Lampard. Steve McClaren’s side must have been glad to see the back of Drogba when he made way for Mateja Kezman with 10 minutes to play – the Ivorian had also scored the winner in our 1-0 success at the Riverside Stadium earlier in the season.
The Blues cruised through the rest of the game, and a first double over Boro since the 1931/32 campaign was in the bag, along with the pre-Christmas and New Year’s target of 12 points from 12. We were now seven clear of Arsenal at the top after their draw against Man City, and even further ahead of Manchester United on a night which should have been even worse for the Red Devils had the officials spotted that Pedro Mendes’ audacious effort from the halfway-line for Tottenham had clearly crossed the goal-line.
Lady Luck clearly wasn’t smiling on Spurs as they were on the receiving end of another disputed call – albeit one that was certainly closer to being borderline – when the Blues visited White Hart Lane.
There had been nothing to separate the sides until Ledley King’s outstretched leg made contact with Alexey Smertin in the box. Graham Poll pointed to the penalty spot and Lampard did the rest. He added a second deep into second-half stoppage time and Spurs’ 18-year wait for a home win over Chelsea continued.
‘That run made us think this might be one of the games we could lose,’ revealed assistant manager Steve Clarke after we had made it 30 consecutive league games without defeat to the boys from north London. ‘The celebrations at the end showed how much it meant to the team. We’re not invincible, but we’re on top of our game – and the matches can’t come quickly enough.’
Spurs boss Martin Jol, meanwhile, gave his assessment of the Blues’ championship credentials.
‘Chelsea have all the ingredients to win the title,’ he said. ‘They are the best side in England. They have the right mentality, are eager, ambitious, very strong defensively and can attack quickly. And luck? Well they got a goal out of nothing today.’
There was more good news for Lamps after his match-winning brace as he was chosen by England supporters as the Three Lions’ standout player in 2004, having starred in his country’s run to the quarter-finals of the European Championship.
Gudjohnsen was also honoured in his homeland after being selected as their Sportsman of the Year, becoming the first footballer to receive the award in almost 20 years. The previous winner? His father, Arnor. On that occasion, Gudjohnsen senior went on to lift the domestic league in Belgium later that year. Would lightning strike twice?
The contribution of the Blues no.22 during his time at Chelsea is often underplayed amidst the star names who have represented the club over the past couple of decades, but to one of his team-mates in particular he was a star.
‘He was one of the people who left the greatest impression,’ wrote Drogba of the Icelander in his autobiography. ‘Technically, he could do anything. His control of the ball was exceptional and his speed only improved his natural skills.’
Our incredible defensive record was catching the eye at that time, however, as the victory over Spurs set a new Premier League record of six consecutive wins without conceding a goal; Thierry Henry’s controversial free-kick in mid-December was the last occasion that Petr Cech’s goal had been breached in the top flight. Fortunately, the big Czech goalkeeper was at least being kept busy off the field as he took on the role of translator for new signing Jiri Jarosik, a 6ft 4in central midfielder who had signed from CSKA Moscow.
Another game could be added to the list of clean-sheet victories after Portsmouth were defeated at the Bridge with the minimum of fuss. The win was in the bag by half-time as another double from Drogba – including a superb free-kick – sandwiched a goal from Arjen Robben, who rounded Jamie Ashdown to score from the tightest of angles.
The pressure was starting to tell on Arsenal, who had slipped 10 points behind as the Blues continued to set a relentless pace.
‘We know how it feels from last year, when they just kept on winning,’ said Joe Cole of the demoralising effect caused by a lengthy winning streak from the Premier League leaders. ‘It’s up to them to keep getting the right results.’
Sir Alex Ferguson’s attempt to put the pressure on Chelsea by highlighting previous examples of the Premier League leaders throwing away a huge lead was also falling on deaf ears.
‘They can say what they want,’ insisted Mourinho. ‘There is no pressure at the top – the pressure is being second or third. I don’t see Manchester United or Arsenal’s games on television, or listening to the radio waiting for their results. If we win, then our job for that week is done.’